These questions presented by The Westerly Sun in the article “Making a will is an important legal step,” may seem very basic, but many people don’t really understand how wills work and why they are such an important part of estate planning. Let’s go through these fundamentals about wills.
A will is a legal document that must be prepared under very strict standards to explain your wishes about how you want your estate–that is, your property, money, tangible possessions, and real estate—distributed after you die.
A will also does more than that. A will, which is sometimes referred to as a “Last Will and Testament,” also makes clear who you want to be in charge of your minor children, if both parents should die. It also is how you name a person to be in charge of your affairs after death, by naming them as executor of your estate.
A complete estate plan includes a will, and several other documents, including a power of attorney, trusts and a health care proxy. The goal of all of these documents is to make it easier for your surviving spouse or loved ones to take care of you and your possessions, if you become too ill to speak on your own behalf, or when you die.
Your will provides instructions about what happens to your estate. Who should receive your money and property? These instructions must be followed by the person you choose as your executor. The local probate court must give its approval, and then the estate can be distributed.
If you have a valid will, it is admitted to probate (a court process) upon your death, and then your wishes are followed. If you don’t have a will, you are said to have died “intestate.” The laws of the state, and not you, and not your loved ones, will decide what will happen to everything you own that is subject to probate. Usually this means that assets are distributed to family members, based on their degree of kinship with you.
This may not be what you wanted. If you have children, and especially if you have children with special needs, the court will appoint a guardian for those children. You may not want Aunt Jennifer raising your daughters, but that may end up happening.
Properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, a will is a binding legal document that carries great significance. No one likes to think about dying, or becoming incapacitated, but by planning ahead, you can determine what you want to happen, and protect those you love.
We invite you to submit our online form to request a consultation with one of our Madison, Wisconsin, or Rockford, Illinois, area attorneys to discuss your estate planning goals and getting your important estate planning documents in place.